BLACK ENTERTAINMENT TELEVISION

U.S. Cable Network

Black Entertainment Television (BET) is the first and only television network in the United States primarily devoted to the attraction of African American viewers. Launched with a paltry $15,000 investment in 1980, the black-owned, basic-cable franchise had grown into a diversified, $61 million media enterprise by late 1993. Despite this rather phenomenal growth, however, BET's audience reach continues to be overshadowed by larger cable industry players (e.g., Turner Broadcasting Systems [TBS], Home Box Office [HBO], and ESPN).

Based in majority-black Washington, D.C., BET has added about 2 million subscriber homes per year since 1984, reaching more than 40 million cable households in 2500 markets by 1995. Moreover, the network has more than tripled revenues since 1985; it reported profits for the first time in 1986, when it finally hit A.C. Nielsen ratings charts and attracted major advertisers. In 1991, BET Holdings, Inc.--BET's parent company--became the first black-owned company to be traded on the New York Stock Exchange.

From the very beginning, the heart and soul of BET programming was the music video. Predating MTV by a year, BET has offered as much as eighteen hours of music videos a day, prompting many to perceive the 24-hour network as essentially a black-oriented music video service. Thus while MTV was being criticized in 1983 for excluding black artists from its playlist (Tina Turner and the interracial group English Beat excepted), many viewers were tuning into BET for such offerings. Indeed, the network's flagship program, VideoSoul, has became a household word in many black communities.

But as BET grew, the network began to diversify its program offerings and image. By its tenth anniversary in 1990, the network had initiated several original programs/projects, including: For the Record, featuring members of the Congressional Black Caucus; Teen Summit, a Saturday noon show for youth; Black Agenda 2000, a series of forums on issues of interest to the black community; Conversation with Ed Gordon, an interview program with contemporary newsmakers; Inside Studio A, concerts and interviews taped before a live audience; Personal Diary, one-on-one interviews with prominent blacks; On Stage, plays written and performed by blacks; and Our Voices, a daily talk show.

More recent BET program schedules have included: ComicView, a stand-up comedy review; Screen Scene, a black-oriented entertainment journal; Jazz Central, a jazz music program; and Rap City, a rap video program. From time to time, BET also airs sporting events featuring teams from historically black colleges and universities, and rounds out its schedule with reruns of popular black-oriented shows such as Sanford and Son, What's Happening, Frank's Place and Roc. News and public affairs programs tend to be relegated to the weekends.

BET was the brainchild of Robert L. Johnson, who developed the idea for the network in 1979 while serving as vice president for governmental relations at the National Cable Television Association. Johnson, an African American, noted in 1989 that BET "should be for black media what Disney is to the general media or what Motown was to music" (New York Times, September 17, 1989, p. F4). Industry observers have applauded Johnson's efficient management style and his aggressive plans to expand the company's product base and consumers. Johnson currently owns 52 percent of BET, while HBO, Tele-Communications Inc., and Great American Broadcasting each own 16 percent.

Echoing others who point to unique obstacles in the path of black business, Johnson argued in 1989 that industry racism had stunted BET's growth. In particular, he noted that many cable operators have been slow to carry BET (e.g., BET was carried on only 1,825 of the nation's 7,500 systems in 1989), and that BET has been saddled with some of the lowest subscriber fees in the industry (e.g., BET earned only about 5 cents per subscriber in 1989, while other cable services typically earned between 15 to 20 cents per subscriber). Some analysts agreed with Johnson's charges of industry racism, but noted that many of BET's problems were due to the network's lack of resources and Johnson's corresponding inability to adequately market it.

 

Nonetheless, BET has become much more than just a basic-cable network since its humble beginnings. By 1995, BET Holdings owned and operated a broad array of black-oriented media products, including: Black Entertainment Television, the basic-cable network; YSB (Young Sisters and Brothers), a magazine targeted at black youths; Emerge, a magazine offering analysis and commentary on contemporary issues facing black America; Action Pay-Per-View, a national, satellite-delivered, pay-per-view movie channel based in Santa Monica, Calif.; BET International, a provider of BET programming throughout Africa and other foreign markets; Identity Television, a London-based cable service targeting Afro-Caribbean viewers; BET Productions, a subsidiary providing technical and production services to outside companies; BET Radio Network, a radio service providing news and entertainment packages to affiliated stations across the U.S.; and BET Pictures, a joint venture with Blockbuster Entertainment Corporation to produce and distribute black, family-oriented films.

- Darnell M. Hunt

FURTHER READING

Brown, Joe. "Toasting A Sure BET: Black Network Links to New Satellite." Washington Post (Washington, D.C.), August 16, 1982.

Hall, Carla. "Birth of a Network: Salesman and Stars at a Kickoff for BET." Washington Post (Washington, D.C.), January 25, 1980.

Little, Benilde."Robert Johnson: The Eyes Behind BET." Essence (New York), November, 1990.

Margulies, Lee. "Black Cable TV Network Grows." Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, California), December 8, 1981.

Osborne, Karen. "BET: Tuning Into Viewers." Black Enterprise (New York), April, 1989.

Shales, Tom. "Beyond 'Benson': Black-Oriented Channel From a Cable Pioneer." Washington Post (Washington, D.C.), November 30, 1979.

Stein, Lisa. "Getting BETter: After 10 Years, TV's Black Network Comes of Age." TV Guide (Radnor, Pennsylvania), June 16, 1990.

Sturgis, Ingrid. "The BE 100s: BET Expands Into Pay-Per-View." Black Enterprise (New York),September, 1993.

Watson, John G. "Black Network Debuts on Cable." Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, California), January 29, 1980.

Williams, Christopher C. "A Black Network Makes Its Move: Cable's BET Puts Plenty of Ambition Into Its Fall Schedule." New York Times (New York), September 17, 1989.

 

See also Cable Networks